For a long time it has been Glashütte's "other" major watch brand, but in recent years Glashütte Original has really come into its own. QP travelled to Saxony to discover a confident brand - and one steeped in twentieth century history like no other.
Think about German watchmaking right now, and the chances are your mind turns to A. Lange & Söhne or Nomos Glashütte. Nearby neighbour Glashütte Original, meanwhile, has been more in the shadows thus far, at least in this country – but there are signs that is to change, with impressive recent Baselworld showings and a strong growth strategy. From a retail perspective, it is trying to open up hitherto sluggish markets like France, Italy, Spain and the UK. Harrods and Mappin & Webb both now stock Glashütte Original, as well as Bond St’s Wempe.
All of which means it’s high time we revisited the brand’s origins. The story of Glashütte watchmaking is a story of accidents of geography, in different ways and over several generations. It was silver mining that put Glashütte, a small town near the German-Czech border, on the map. Deposits discovered here in the fifteenth century brought industry and commerce, but by the early nineteenth century, reserves had dwindled.
The government of Saxony encouraged watchmakers to settle in the town, and slowly a concentration of craftsmanship was cultured, in one small valley. Led to Glashütte by Ferdinand Adolph Lange, men such as Julius Assmann and Moritz Grossmann began to create pocket watches that were the equal of anything produced in Switzerland.
But Glashütte’s distance from the rest of the watchmaking world, and from the centres of fashion and influence, led its watchmakers to underestimate the rise of the wristwatch. Ignoring the direction the industry was taking, the town’s companies almost went bust in the 1930s before belatedly abandoning pocket watch production.
By the time war broke out in 1939, Glashütte watchmakers – like their Swiss competitors – were no longer restricted by the basic geography of the valley – the same geography that had forced the cultivation of such a tightly clustered, single-minded town of watchmakers.
The war itself took a predictable toll on Glashütte’s workforce, and in a cruel blow, the town was bombarded on the very last day of the war. But the real impact of World War II was yet to come. Germany was divided, and Glashütte found itself in Soviet East Germany: the German Democratic Republic (GDR).
Not only did this at one stroke cut Glashütte’s watchmakers off from international trade, it also saw the town’s stock of machinery seized by Russian troops as part of a reparations deal.
Thirdly, the private enterprises of the pre-war era were outlawed. In 1951, the watchmakers saw their assets, workforce, intellectual property and premises forcibly combined, to make the state-controlled Glashütte Uhrenbetrieb, or GUB for short.
Despite these colossal geographical disadvantages, walled off from the rest of the world, GUB’s newly-formed workforce re-built its machinery, and for the next 48 years settled back down to building lower-grade watches for Soviet consumption (as well as anything else that was called for, from timers for washing machines to mechanical tape recorders, and even a clock made for pigeon breeders).
When the Berlin wall came down, GUB was passed into the control of the new German Republic; it was the legal heir of all the companies that had formed it in the first place, and before long Glashütte’s watchmakers wanted to reestablish what was lost – primarily the Lange family, which returned from exile to buy back its name. Of the 2,500-odd workforce under the employ of GUB in 1990, only 72 were left by the time it changed its name to Glashütte Original a year or two later; many had moved to the resurgent A. Lange & Söhne. It was a chaotic time.
Along came investor Heinz Pfieffer, a man whom we might nowadays refer to as a “turnaround specialist”. He put the company back on its feet, recognised that it had to target high-end watchmaking to survive, and within six years sold it to the Swatch Group. Although re-formed, the brand’s identity was somewhat shapeless, trying to be all things to all men, until a vigorous bout of “restrategising” left it in the lean shape you find it today.
“I was appointed right towards the end of this restructuring,” says CEO Yann Gamard, “so I’ve been able to take all the credit!”
The Glashütte Original of today is something of a revelation; gone are the bright, bold sports watches of the late 2000s. The current range combines extremely traditional styles with subtle cold-war revivalism, at competitive prices. The Senator Perpetual Calendar, for example, costs just €22,000 in steel.
“We are fortunate enough to have developed a few bestsellers”, admits Gamard, citing the GUB-derived retro-cool Sixties and Seventies ranges in particular: “I can’t make enough of the Seventies Chronograph”. The two twentieth-century collections work partly because it’s not just about the style – Glashütte Original’s movements are made entirely in-house save for the springs, and in terms of finishing are simply superb.
Some of the brand’s character has always come from a love of idiosyncratic complications; take the Senator Diary, for example, the first and – to our knowledge – only watch that lets you set an alarm for any point in the next thirty days. Or the PanoMatic Counter XL, an eccentric piece that combines a column-wheel flyback chronograph with a large digital display at 9 o’clock whose only function, controlled by three pushers on the left of the case, is to count up or down.
Recently, however, the brand has really been asserting itself with highly impressive new calibers. Last year saw the introduction of the caliber 37 fully-integrated flyback chronograph movement in both the Senator and Seventies families, and in 2011 Glashütte Original created its first grand complication - the Grand Cosmopolite Tourbillon (GCT).
Limited to 25 pieces, in platinum, it’s a 37-time zone worldtimer with perpetual calendar and flying tourbillon. Both the perpetual calendar and the worldtime functions can be adjusted forward or backwards. It also comes with a hunter caseback engraved on the inside with all 37 time zones.
This year at Baselworld Glashütte Original is adding a worldtimer to its core collection in the form of the Senator Cosmopolite. This takes the 37-time zone world time complication from the GCT, but it’s not as straightforward as that sounds. “We had to create a completely new movement, because of the placement of the other elements. But it’s kept the spirit of the Grand Cosmopolite – all of it will be adjustable from the crown”, explains Gamard.
With the range of watches settled down, growth is the next big item on the agenda for Glashütte Original. And it’s a slightly thorny one. It’s not a question of demand, either: “When we started restrategising a few years ago, we had 450 points of sale,” says Gamard. “We took that down to 275, and doubled sales nonetheless.”
“If you listen to my VP of sales, we can grow by 25 per cent a year – he has the orders. But of course we can’t – I don’t want to leave customers unhappy. Our ability to grow is actually about 10 per cent per year; we just can’t make the pieces any faster.”
“Last year I had nine watches left in stock. Nine. Glashütte belongs to a big group, which is eager to be successful, and they are yelling and screaming at us because we aren’t delivering enough.”
Belonging to the Swatch Group has of course been beneficial to Glashütte Original, a point its CEO readily acknowledges: “We’re a tiny cottage industry compared to Switzerland; we need them despite producing nearly everything here. We still use Swiss skills. Lange has Richemont; we have Swatch.” The acquisition has also brought material gains – Glashütte Original now owns its own dial factory in Pforzheim, and this year’s releases include some lavish blue dials on existing models – see the PanoReserve at the top of the page.
To cater to demand, the brand has already been growing: staff levels have doubled in the last four years to around 600. But output can’t follow suit – it takes time to train new watchmakers. Currently production stands at around 8,000 watches a year. Modern techniques are helping – the introduction of spark erosion technology has vastly accelerated the cutting of plates and bridges, for example.
Visit Glashütte and growth is definitely one of the take-home impressions – borne out by Glashütte’s spacious new factory (below), as well as that of Moritz Grossmann that faces it – but it’s not about sharp-elbowed competition. With its current offering and pricing, Glashütte Original deserves to be much more prominent, but you won’t squeeze much out of Mr Gamard or anyone working for him in the way of naked ambition.
A little of the collective spirit fostered under the GDR remains in Glashütte, a sentiment that goes beyond professional solidarity. If the town does well, everyone does well – an ethos that’s easy to understand in a place where it’s common for cousins, brothers, aunts and uncles to work for separate brands. No matter what geography might throw at it next, this cottage industry is stronger than the sum of its parts.
Find out more about Glashütte Original here.